Robert David (Davey) O'Brien, All-American football player at Texas Christian University, was born in Dallas, Texas, on June 22, 1917. As a youth he quarterbacked a sandlot football team that called itself the Gaston Avenue Bulldogs and spent several summers at a boys' camp near Brandon, Missouri. He was a 118-pound All-State selection at Woodrow Wilson High School, which he led to the state playoffs in 1932. He enrolled at TCU in 1935, studied geology, and sat on the bench behind Sammy Baugh until 1937, when Baugh went on to the National Football League. In O'Brien's first season as starting quarterback, TCU fell to a mediocre 4-4-3 record, but O'Brien was named to the All-Southwest Conferences first team. In 1938 he led the Horned Frogs to their first undefeated season, including a 15-7 victory over Carnegie Tech in the Sugar Bowl, and the only national championship in school history. In 1938 the five-foot-seven, 150-pound O'Brien had 1,457 passing yards, a Southwest Conference record that stood for ten years, and threw only four interceptions in 194 passing attempts. He was named to thirteen All-American teams and became the only college football player to win the Heisman, Maxwell, and Walter Camp trophies in the same year. When he went to New York to accept the Heisman Trophy, Fort Worth boosters hired a stagecoach to carry him to the Downtown Athletic Club.
After graduating from TCU O'Brien signed a $10,000 contract with the Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL. In his rookie season with the Eagles he passed for 1,324 yards in eleven games, breaking Baugh's NFL record, and was named the quarterback on the All-Pro team. The Eagles gave him a $2,000 raise, but he retired after the 1940 season to join the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He was assigned to the bureau's field office in Springfield, Missouri, after completing his training. Later he was a firearms instructor at Quantico, Virginia, and spent the last five years of his FBI career in Dallas. He retired in 1950 and went to work for Haroldson L. Hunt in land development. Later he entered the oil business and worked for Dresser-Atlas Industries of Dallas.
In 1971 O'Brien was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery to remove a kidney and part of his right lung. He died of cancer on November 18, 1977. He was survived by his wife, Janie, two sons, and a daughter. A month later the Fort Worth Club presented the first Davey O'Brien Award, to honor the best college football player in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, and New Mexico. In 1981 officials of the newly established Davey O'Brien Educational and Charitable Trust decided to change the award to honor the best college football quarterback in the nation and to offer the Davey O'Brien High School Scholarship Award annually to a leading Texas high school athlete. The O'Brien Hall of Fame opened in 1986 on the sixth floor of the Fort Worth Club. O'Brien was named to the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame in 1955 and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 1956.
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Dallas Morning News, May 1, November 19, 1977. New York Times, November 19, 1977. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
Sports and Recreation
Texas in the 1920s
World War II
Texas Post World War II
Dallas/Fort Worth Region
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Martin Donell Kohout,
“O'Brien, Robert David [Davey],”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 17, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
May 1, 1995
Most Recent Revision Date:
November 20, 2020
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: